We want to create more supple, agile and flexible horses. And through all that training, we create horses with better-quality gaits. One of my favorite expressions is “Training to improve your horse’s scores isn’t always correct, but correct training will always improve your scores.”
Developing Gait Quality
Each movement in the dressage arena has a certain ability to affect the horse’s gait for the better. But if it is applied wrongly, it can create the exact opposite and work to the detriment of the gait. Within our day-to-day work, if there is no benefit to the gait, that means there was no benefit to the work we did. It is important to me for each and every rider I work with to understand how each movement or exercise is affecting the gaits and then to make sure we are working with each horse as an individual to improve his overall way of going.
If we look at the movements as bringing horses into greater degrees of collection, making them more supple and helping to create greater mobility through the forehand, we create better-quality gaits. To achieve this, we have to look at each gait and understand its basic quality:
2. The trot swings.
3. The canter jumps.
Our work should create more jumping expressive canters, more cadenced and ground-covering trots and more four-beat, marching and ground-covering walks. This understanding is important to me in my day-to-day teaching and training. It is especially important for youth riders in the country whom I view as our next generation of both Olympic team members and also trainers. It is one of my passions that in teaching amateurs, professionals and youth riders alike, I am creating thinking riders who understand the how’s and why’s we ride each movement and how each of those movements affects the horses. Through the discussion of some sample movements, it is my hope that I can pass on how the mechanics can affect the quality of the gaits and, in turn, why this is essential for a thinking rider to understand.
Longitudinal (back-to-front) and lateral (left and right) flexibility are key to understanding how the movements affect the gaits. Both aspects of that flexibility are what help increase the horse’s range of motion. All the work we do with him should be challenging the range of motion that works both on the lateral plane of the horse’s body as well as the longitudinal plane.
When we talk about the longitudinal range of motion, we are talking about the horse’s ability to flex over his topline with regard to roundness, stretching and expansion or compression. This is where we hear and often use the term “lifting through the back,” which allows a horse to find a greater ability to bend and expand the joints and muscles with regard to collection and extension.
Take, for example, the canter: The canter is a three-beat gait with a clear moment of suspension. The back of the horse has to be round, supple and flexible in order for the hind legs to travel farther under the body to create a greater degree of collection. Without a clear moment of suspension in the canter, there is not enough time in the sequence of the stride for the horse’s hind legs to travel far enough under his body to develop the collection we need.
It is also harder to attain the collection needed in the higher levels without sustaining or creating more jump in our training. A canter half pass is not beneficial to the horse’s long-term development if, within that half pass, the quality of the canter, or the jump of the canter, dissipates as the horse is half-passing. If he loses jump, he loses the ability to keep his hind legs under, and if he loses the ability to keep his hind legs under, he loses balance, impulsion and many other things.
The way a horse has to lift and use the back in those transitions cannot be recreated anywhere else in the work we do and is probably simplest and the most beneficial thing we can do to help create strength and flexibility longitudinally through his topline. My teacher used to say the trot–canter transitions, repeated quietly and daily, were the best thing you could do to put muscle on your horse’s top line.
Proper stretching work and huge amounts of walking on a long rein are also prerequisites for creating longitudinal flexibility. Letting the horse’s body fully stretch, or “uncoil,” while in walk, trot and canter is extremely important in developing that range of motion, suppleness and strength that it needs to be longitudinally flexible. Compression work always needs to be complemented with expansion work. Think of your horse like an accordion that needs equal amounts of pull and push through the body to work correctly.
Overall longitudinal flexibility and strength can be increased through various movements and exercises. Think of yourself as a personal trainer taking your horse to the gym every day and running him through a core-building workout routine. Anything that asks him to flex and lift his abdominal muscles is something that is going to work his body on a longitudinal level. Any and all of our collected work should be challenging that flexibility and strength as the ability to collect lies in the ability to lift through the back.
Two of my favorite, yet simple, exercises for working longitudinal strength and flexibility are trot–canter–trot and canter–walk–canter transitions.
When we talk about lateral range of motion, we are talking about the horse’s ability to flex and bend through the length of his body to the left and right. All lateral work challenges that bend and flexion through the horse’s body as does any basic bending work. Lateral work gives us the chance to stretch and strengthen one side of the horse’s body at a time.
Lateral work basically isolates any weakness or stiffness in the body and allows us to work it through systematically, one section of the body at a time. The range of motion we create allows the horse to find a greater ability to bend and expand the muscles for a greater range of motion in the gait, creating more movement. If we elongate the right and left sides, we make the horse’s body longer and, in turn, able to reach farther within the stride. When the horse is correctly round, the stride will always follow the arching path of the topline. If the topline is short, the stride becomes short. If the topline arches long, the stride arches long.
Take, for example, a shoulder-in. If we ride the shoulder-in and think about the way the horse’s body needs to work in order for the shoulder-in to be developing a greater range of movement, we are on the right track. When we ride the shoulder-in to develop and challenge the range of motion, we can, for the time being, take away the worry about whether the horse is on three or four tracks or has no angle at all. What we need to think about is how the horse’s body needs to both contract on the inside and expand on the outside. So often we get weighed down by worrying if our horses are on three tracks and end up with no bend, which means no benefit to the gait.
When riding into a shoulder-in, we need to really feel the rib cage of the horse displace away from our inside leg and the horse’s inside hip lower to create the depth of bend. That, in turn, stretches the horse adequately through the set of muscles on the outside of his body. It isn’t until we feel this stretch or release through those muscles that we have the contraction on the inside. This makes room for the horse’s inside hind leg to engage under his body. As a result, the shoulder-in will create more collection.
Reiner Klimke said, “I ride a half pass to make my extensions bigger.” This makes sense because the half pass creates greater stretch and allows the horse to reach up and out in the extended paces.
Increased Range of Motion
If we take the canter pirouette, we can see how a movement can combine the lateral and longitudinal range of motion work that we need to be doing. A pirouette is the smallest circle we make, which means theoretically it needs the greatest degree of bend. We need an extremely laterally supple horse to be able to create the amount of bend needed in the end for a really good pirouette. With the bend that we looked at in the shoulder-in, we create room for the inside hind leg to tuck under the horse’s body through the displacement of the rib cage, away from the rider’s inside leg.
With the longitudinal aspect of the canter taken into account, we need enough jump in the canter (or lift through the back) to allow the horse room and time to bring both hind legs far under his center of gravity. In turn, he will be able to rock his weight back onto those engaged hind legs, creating the collection we need.
We need a longitudinally strong and supple horse to create this jump and collection. If we don’t have the lateral and longitudinal strength and flexibility for the movement, horses and riders find ways to compensate. The horse may end up incorrectly spinning or losing bend, rhythm, balance or tempo—all faults of a bad pirouette. When done correctly, the pirouettes should strengthen and stretch our horse’s body, which, in turn, creates a horse who can move better.
When done correctly, all movements have the ability to improve the quality of our horse’s gaits. It is up to us as thinking riders to understand how each movement and exercise works to help create that and, in turn, produce horses who move more majestically and expressively with each day of training.